Nuclear Campaign Finance Reform Option

Paul Begala and James Carville have proposed what I’m dubbing the Nuclear Campaign Finance Reform Option: banning incumbent officeholders from taking any money from any one, period. Even they acknowledge it is “A radical plan to Abramoff-proof politics.”

The biggest problem with the status quo of campaign fundraising is that it puts good people in a bad system. Nearly every member of the House and Senate, whether sinner or saint, spends a spectacular amount of time raising money. The very process of raising money distorts the politician’s perspective. You try spending six hours a day, six days a week in a cramped room calling people and sucking up to them for money. If the only people you ever talk to are people with the wherewithal to contribute thousands of dollars to your campaign, that is bound to affect the way you see the world. You don’t hear much about the minimum wage from folks who can write a check for $2,000. Nor do you spend a lot of time calling people who don’t have health insurance or who can’t afford their prescription drugs.

First, we raise congressional pay big time. Pay ’em what we pay the president: $400,000. That’s a huge increase from the $162,000 congressmen and senators currently make. Paul, especially, has been a critic of congressional pay increases. But he is willing to more than double politicians’ pay in order to get some of the corrupt campaign money out of the system. You see, the pay raise comes with a catch. In return, we get a simple piece of legislation that says members of Congress cannot take anything of value from anyone other than a family member. No lunches, no taxi rides. No charter flights. No golf games. No ski trips. No nothing.

And when it is campaign time, incumbents would be under a complete ban on raising money. You read that right. No president or member of Congress could accept a single red cent from individuals, corporations, or special interests. Period.

Challengers, on the other hand, would be allowed to raise money in any amount from any individual American citizen or political action committee. No limits, just as the free-market conservatives have always wanted. But here is the catch: Within 24 hours of receiving a contribution, the challenger would have to report it electronically to the Federal Election Commission, which would post it for the public to see. That way, if you want to accept a million dollars from, say, Paris Hilton, go for it. But be prepared for voters and reporters to ask what you promised her in exchange.

What if the incumbent wants to spend her own money? After all, the Supreme Court has made it clear that the Constitution does not allow restrictions on how much money a candidate—challenger or incumbent—can spend. No problem. Uncle Sam would write the challenger a check for an equivalent amount. Unlike today, no one would have the upper hand simply because they were loaded.

Kevin Drum is intrigued:

I don’t know if their plan would work, but I’d sure like to see congressional Dems put something like this on the table. It’s going to be hard to get any serious attention from anything less, and practical or not, at least it gets us talking about the core issue instead of arguing over minutiae like toothless travel bans and meaningless extensions of “cooling down” periods.

I’m more-or-less in agreement with Drum, Carville, and Begala on the travel bans and taking of personal benefits, as discussed in a piece I wrote this morning. This campaign finance plan, however, makes little sense even if we simply fiat away the practicality of enforcement and the political obstacles against passage.

For one thing, if you’re going to take private donations out of the process–assuming it’s constitutionally permissible–just do it. The rationale by which it is fine for challengers to take money but not incumbents is hard to fathom. Challengers, after all, would become incumbents if they win. Would they forget who gave the money that got them there? If not, then this reform solves nothing. If so, they this reform is unnecessary.

Further, if full disclosure of who gave what to whom solves the problem–and I think it would in fact go a long way–then why not simply enact that reform for both sides? Either it’s a good idea or it isn’t.

Also, there’s something unseemly about having private donations to one side matched by an offseting donation from the federal taxpayer to the other. Americans clearly resent the idea of haviing tax money finance political campaigns, as evidenced by the fact that so few of them check off the donation to the federal campaign fund. To be, in essence, forced to donate money confiscated from you by the government to pay for essential services donated to the candidate that you oppose is simply outrageous.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I don’t think I’d go as far as saying NO money from anyone. Rather, I’d do two things:

    1. Raise the pay–probably not to $400,000, but enough to pay th eincumbent to do the job and pay for filing fees and for accounting expenses related to full disclosure.

    2. Allow donations only from constituents, with full disclosure.

    Constituent = Registered voter in the district (Rep.) or state (Sen.) the incumbent represents. Not a registered voter? Don’t contribute, go support or oppose your own own Rep. of Sen.

    Full disclosure: ALL receipts and expenditures over very small amount–more like $25 than like $100–posted in a standard format on the web within 2 business days after receipt or expenditure. No delays; no excuses; no “mistakes.”


    1. First offense: Every contact with a constituent for the rest of the term must include a notification that the incumbent has violated the rules.

    2. Second offense: Ineligible to run for reelection.

    3. Third offense: Immediate resignation preferred–go away and we won’t do anything more. Fight and lose: immediate removal from office and absolute disqualification from any future elected or appointed position.

    One thing that really disgusts me are my Rep. and one Sen. who never answer me, take bribes from and provide access to out-of-state special interests, but still expect me to support them for reelection.